ENCINITAS – For the first time during the election campaign, barbs flew publicly between the Encinitas mayoral candidates during a spirited candidate forum Thursday night.
The forum, hosted by the Leucadia-Encinitas Town Council and moderated by the League of Women Voters at the San Diego County Library’s Encinitas branch, was the first of the campaign season exclusively for the five mayoral candidates- current Mayor Kristin Gaspar and Deputy Mayor Tony Kranz, former mayor Sheila Cameron, independent journalist Alex Fidel and longtime local engineer Mike Bawany.
The candidates are vying to serve a two-year term as the city’s first elected mayor.
The panel fielded questions from the audience that were read by moderator Lois Martyns, a member of the league, and each candidate was given a minute to respond.
The forum took a noticeably more aggressive tone compared to the first forum of the election season last week in Cardiff-by-the-Sea.
In one of the exchanges, involving the purchase of the Pacific View Elementary School site, Kranz, an ardent supporter of the city’s $10 million purchase of the property, called out his council colleague Gaspar for her opposition to the property’s price tag.
“The threshold for her to walk away was so low,” Kranz said.
Later during her closing remarks, Gaspar would respond to the barb.
“The threshold was not too low, the price was just too high,” Gaspar said, arguing that the purchase took money away from other city priorities, such as road repair. “The city simply couldn’t afford it.”
Kranz, in his closing statement, again defended the purchase, saying that it was a concerted choice to save a legacy property, which he said could have been purchased for much less by the previous city council, of which Gaspar was part of a four-vote super-majority composed of Jerome Stocks, Mark Muir and Jim Bond.
“Instead, she (Gaspar) was recusing herself from the vote because she didn’t know enough on the issue,” Kranz said. “The people need a leader who is willing to step up and lead.”
The Pacific View discussion also generated the strongest response of the night from Bawany, who criticized the purchase and the lack of a definitive plan for the property.
“I think was a case of biting off more than what we can chew,” he said.
Arguably the most heated exchange came between Fidel and Kranz during a question about the perceived militarization of local law enforcement, which then turned to a referendum on the Sheriff Department’s actions in Leucadia in 2013 when deputies shot a suspect who had shot at and injured two deputies.
Fidel said that deputies mishandled the incident, as the suspect suffered from depression. Kranz, who had previously answered the question, felt compelled to defend the department’s actions, telling the crowd that the man shot at police.
Fidel responded again, prompting moderator Lois Martyns to demand the candidates follow the rules set out at the beginning of the forum.
“I need to remind the candidates that this is not a debate,” Martyns said.
Cameron, who was not going to speak on the topic, requested to speak, and she ended the topic by saying that she believed that deputies needed more training.
“What happened in Leucadia was way out of line,” Cameron said. “I think our deputies need to be trained better, the police need to be walking the beat and getting to know the people better.”
Cameron also faced a direct question from the audience about her previous tenure as councilwoman, in which the question characterized her as having a reputation of “going at it alone” and berating staff, a characterization that Cameron dismissed.
Cameron said that staff members praised her for her efforts to remove then-City Manager Lauren Wasserman.
“I love these rumors,” Cameron said. “I got along great with staff.”
Candidates also fielded questions about the city’s efforts to crack down on alcohol-related nuisance in downtown, the city’s affordable housing stock and the upcoming housing element and the removal of several large eucalyptus trees that create Leucadia’s iconic canopy to make way for the proposed Leucadia streetscape.
Both Kranz and Gaspar said they would support the imposition of the so-called “deemed approved” ordinance if the summer’s boosted code-enforcement efforts do not have the desired effect of improving the downtown night scene.
Kranz said the downtown merchants should also financially support an ambassador program that would deploy private security downtown to monitor the situation and complement the city’s efforts.
When it came to affordable housing, all of the candidates supported ramping up the city’s efforts to offer amnesty to homeowners with illegal dwelling units in exchange for the units being dedicated for low-income housing.
A critical – and controversial – component of the upcoming housing element is the city’s effort to fulfill a state mandate to increase the city’s affordable housing stock. Part of the proposed element would select areas citywide where properties would be eligible for a denser zoning designation and could potentially be used to add to the affordable units available.
Cameron has been an outspoken opponent of such “up-zoning,” and she believes the amnesty program would drastically reduce, or potentially eliminate the need for the denser designation.
“What we need to do is count the homes that are in our backyard,” she said.
Cameron was critical of Gaspar’s vote against raising a certain fee that developers pay in lieu of building more affordable housing, which would increase the city’s affordable housing funds it could use for its own housing efforts.
“That is the difference between Kristin and I; I am not a developer’s tool,” she said. “I stand by you.”
When it came to the removal of the iconic Leucadia eucalyptus trees, the majority of the candidates expressed disappointment in the canopy’s demise, but said it was unavoidable to complete the proposed traffic-calming project along Coast Highway.